I want to tell you a story. It's a chapter of my history at Greene Family Camp, a Reform sleep away camp in Texas. It's a lesson about Jewish learning at summer camp – the type of learning that often occurs way before we realize we are learning.
Picture this: A short, shy, knees-shaking 12-year-old from College Station, Texas who was, until that point, accustomed to being the only Jewish kid in her grade out of roughly 650 students. One out of 650! In the summer of 2001, my paternal grandparents gifted me with my first summer at camp, an opportunity to meet Jewish kids my age and to realize there was another way to be one of hundreds.
Two weeks into the session, I was completely immersed in the fun activities and new friends that camp introduced to me. Totally in my element, I was confused when one of my bunk counselors asked me to accompany her to the front office. Having never been called to the principal's office before - and worried that not turning off my flashlight after the first request the night before would be grounds for punishment - I could do nothing but murmur, "Sure, can I bring my fish sticks?"
It turns out, I had done nothing wrong. Phew.
What I didn't see coming was a surprise visit from my mother, my younger brother, and a family friend. Hugs and kisses were shared, and kind words asking how I was doing were spoken, but I could tell they weren't there bearing good news. That day, I learned of my paternal grandfather's passing. Nibbling on my fish sticks, I cried as I ingested this sad news. When my mom asked whether I wanted to go home or stay at camp, I wasn't sure how to answer. I was 12 years old, and I had no life experience thus far to find confidence in making such a choice.
Then it dawned on me. It was my grandparents, Nana and Pop, who gifted me with this summer experience - this Jewish experience. What they would want me to do in this situation? Instantly, I could hear Pop telling me I should stay at camp. He and Nana would've wanted me to stay, to continue to grow as an individual and as a Jew.
That was the summer I realized that we learn at all ages and stages in our lives - and we learn a great deal from our surrounding peers and environments. The connections I made in those two short weeks of my first summer at camp had a unique impact on my life then, and to this day, they hold a meaningful place in my heart.
Making the decision to stay at camp that first summer changed my life for the better. I'm now entering my 11th summer at camp, and my eighth summer as a staff member. I truly believe that it is the experiences and interpersonal connections that I create and nurture every summer that nourish my identity as a Jew - individually, as part of the wider camp community, and as a member of the Jewish people across the globe. It is these interpersonal connections, too, that are responsible for many informal educational moments that take place at camp. Meeting new people and hearing their individual life stories is perhaps the best education we could ever experience. Here at camp, this happens every second of every day. By learning from our peers in a setting like Jewish summer camp, we are learning Jewishly - and we don't always need a pile of supplies to do so!
My Pop helped me to realize that we will continue to learn every day of our lives and that it is an extraordinary experience to be able to do so. He gifted me with the ability to see the good in not-so-good situations and to help others realize their unique gifts and stories, as well.
My first wish for this summer is that everyone, campers and staff members, strive to learn about themselves and about their peers. We all have a unique story to tell, and we shouldn't be afraid to share them with each other. My second wish for this summer is that we all learn from each other. Share your gift and be a part of this amazing Jewish learning experience!
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Jessica Dangott is the summer education director at Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas. Jessica is a long time camper and staff member from College Station, Texas